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Editorial: Popular giant panda cub shines ray of light on Japan-China relations

The giant panda cub Xiang Xiang, born in June at Ueno Zoological Gardens in Tokyo, was unveiled to the general public for the first time on Dec. 19.

    It was the first time in 29 years for a giant panda cub to be unveiled at the zoo, after a cub named Yu Yu made his debut in 1988. Viewing is limited to about 400 groups of visitors per day for the remainder of the viewing period this year. The number of applications to view the panda was 144 times the number of available spots on the busiest day.

    The sight of the panda cub climbing a tree in her enclosure and chewing on bamboo branches has charmed visitors. It must be a great pleasure for zoo officials to reach this point of the cub's unveiling.

    The first time giant pandas came to Japan was in 1972, when two named Kan Kan and Ran Ran were donated to the zoo as "symbols of friendship" in line with the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China that year. A "panda boom" erupted in Japan, and this contributed greatly to friendly relations between the two countries.

    Now, there are a total of nine giant pandas in Japan -- three in Ueno, five at a leisure facility in Wakayama Prefecture, and one in Kobe.

    Giant pandas are a vulnerable species, and their international trade was banned in 1984 under the Washington Convention. However, it is still possible to loan them for the purpose of research on breeding. Xiang Xiang's parents are on loan from China for about 100 million yen per year, and the ownership rights of Xiang Xiang belong to China. It has been agreed that once two years have passed since the giant panda's birth, she is to be sent to China.

    Ueno Zoological Gardens has been involved in exchange with China in the private sector, through such activities as inviting Chinese researchers to conduct research on breeding. China has used its giant pandas strategically, engaging in so-called "panda diplomacy" with the United States and countries in Europe and Asia. They have helped build relations with other countries, as China speculates on boosting the country's image, among other issues.

    Relations between Japan and China, however, have cooled in recent years due to issues including China's maritime advancements. And the situation worsened in 2012 with Japan's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.

    This year, however, a ray of light shone upon relations between the two countries when a smiling Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a summit in November. A recent survey conducted by organizations including The Genron NPO, a nonprofit organization, found that the percentage of people in Japan who felt that relations between Japan and China were "bad" was nearly 30 points lower than last year. In China the figure similarly fell 14 percentage points -- symbolizing a positive trend. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, too, is calling Xiang Xiang an envoy of friendship.

    This year marks 45 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and China. With the recent birth of Xiang Xiang, we hope to see a gain in momentum toward improvements in bilateral relations, such as through joint research on the preservation of rare species.

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